Detroit Center for Family Advocacy is first of its kind

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By Jo Mathis

Legal News

and Katie Vloet

Michigan Communications

Child welfare leaders from across the country gathered at the Michigan Law School last week to consider a successful model for keeping struggling families intact.

Detroit Center for Family Advocacy (CFA) founder Vivek Sankaran, a clinical professor of law in the Law School's Child Advocacy Law Clinic, said that he hopes more such centers will be implemented across the country.

"We're the only office in the country doing this," he said, "and we have good results with what we've achieved in preventing kids from going into foster care."

Since the CFA was founded at the University of Michigan Law School four years ago, it was able to meet its legal objectives in more than 98 percent of prevention cases--those in which the Department of Human Services (DHS) had not removed the children from their families but had substantiated an abuse or neglect incident; and 97 percent of its permanency cases--those in which a child was living with a non-custodial parent, relative, or foster parent, and some legal impediment was preventing the child from staying in the home permanently.

''We're pleased with these outcomes because they show that our approach is working, and that it is an effective way to keep children out of the child welfare system,'' said Sankaran.

The CFA model works like this: An attorney from the center partners with a social worker and family advocate to remove legal barriers and safety risks that otherwise might cause a child to be put in the foster care system. The center serves Wayne County, home to one-third of Michigan's foster children and half of the state's permanent court wards. So far, the CFA has served 313 children from 174 families.

About 90 percent of referrals are from the Michigan Department of Human Services

DHS district manager Michael Patterson said he knew from the start that the community-based legal services was a great idea,

"We just knew it," he said. "And the reason I was so confident was because they were proposing a service that has been absent from the child welfare system from the beginning. And I was there at the beginning. Please just trust me on that!"

"Also, I could see that it was a way to get us back to what our core work was. I started in 1974, and I was on the streets doing protective services work, and somewhere along the way, years into it, I looked around and said: Where did all the grandmothers go? Where did all the aunts go? Where did the neighborhood legal services go? We had lots of strong family community institutions in the 60's and 70's that basically disintegrated over time and with that, funding for community resources ... This was a way to get back there, and connect people with the types of services that could solve the problems and prevent Protective Services from going off to court and starting that entire chain of events that leads to families really being destroyed and kids developing just a host of problems because of extended time in out-of-home placement."

Not long after Patterson signed onto it, administrators asked him: "You did what? They're going to represent parents in child protective proceedings. You're going to share information with these attorneys that will be used against you?"

His explained to them that by sharing information and eliminating the adversarial relationship, they would not be adversaries or end up going to court.

The legal issues the CFA has helped families to resolve have included landlord/tenant disputes, in which a child's home has been deemed too risky because of problems that a landlord needs to address; divorce proceedings that are needed to enable a grandparent to adopt a child in his or her care; a custody order needed by a non-offending parent; and many more.

The CFA is funded in part by the state's Child Care Fund, but the Center still must come up with funds totaling about $200,000 a year from foundation grants and private donations.

Sustaining the Center is always a challenge, Sankaran says, even though the savings from this approach are significant.

Return-on-investment is difficult to calculate, but the evaluation of the CFA found big savings based on conservative estimates. If children from 25 percent of the 110 prevention cases would have entered foster care and stayed for the national average length of stay (about 21 months), the cost avoided by the Michigan child welfare system would be $1.3 million. That figure doesn't include permanency cases, which would make the return-on-investment much higher.

CFA Executive Director Robbin Pott said CFA is a pioneer in using the approach to serve low-income parents and relatives in an effort to keep families together, and to keep children in a safe, loving environment.

She added that the high success rate of the CFA's cases occurs ''because in most of these cases, just a relatively small amount of help is needed to keep kids with their families.''

Published: Thu, May 23, 2013

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